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Prep a Wall for Tile

Use our step-by-step guide to clean and prepare a wall for tile.

Tile backsplash in a kitchen.

Tools & Materials

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Introduction

The ultimate goal of preparing a wall for tile is to create a flat, dry, solid, structurally sound surface firmly attached to the wall studs with no flexibility or movement that could damage installed tile and grout.

For wet areas, such as shower walls, you must take certain precautions. Learn how to prep a shower wall for tile.

Getting Started

You may tile over existing tile, painted or unpainted drywall, plaster and textured walls. However, tiling over tile can add quite a bit of thickness, so make sure your wall can handle the weight.

You should not tile over wallpaper, glossy surfaces, lead paint or plywood. If you’re not sure if you have lead paint, test kits are available. If your paint tests positive, call a professional. Improper removal / preparation of lead paint can cause toxins to spread throughout your home.

To begin, remove all moulding, switchplate and outlet covers, hardware and anything else attached to the wall you wish to tile. Protect surrounding surfaces with drop cloths, plastic sheeting and tape if necessary.

Good to Know

Temperature affects the setting time of patch materials, mortars, grouts and adhesives. Drying time slows at cold temperatures and increases in hot temperatures. Plan your work accordingly.

Caution

Do not install tile if the work area is below freezing or the substrate is frozen. The substrate is the material or layer to which you're applying another material.

New Drywall

Hand sanding an area of drywall in preparation for tile installation.

If you’re working with new drywall, there’s no need to tape the drywall joints. Seal the walls with a skim coat and let it dry thoroughly. Sand with a medium-grit sandpaper to create a uniform surface that’s not too smooth. You want the tile adhesive to have something to grab onto. Thoroughly vacuum the area and give the wall a once-over with a damp sponge or cleaning cloth. Allow the area to thoroughly dry before beginning tile installation.

Painted or Textured Drywall

Vacuuming dust from wall preparation for tile.

Scrape away any loose or peeling paint. Scrape the wall to remove any texture and to create a flat surface. Patch any holes or cracks with spackling compound and sand the entire surface with medium-grit sandpaper. Vacuum to remove dust. Remove any remaining dust, oils and grease from the wall with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) or an ammonia-based cleanser. Let the wall dry completely before beginning tile installation.

Plaster

Sanding thinset before installing wall tile.

Patch any cracks or holes with spackling compound and sand smooth. Prime the wall with thinset and allow ample drying time. Sand any high or uneven spots to create a level surface prior to tile installation.

Wallpaper

Scraping wallpaper off a wall as preparation for tile installation.

Remove wallpaper and glue from the wall(s). Patch any holes or cracks with spackling compound. Once dry, sand any high spots to create a level wall. If the wall was painted prior to wallpaper installation, follow the instruction for painted or textured walls. Likewise, if you have plaster, follow the instruction in that section.

Tile

Chiseling tile off a wall in preparation for new tile installation.

If you’re working with an existing tile wall, you have two choices. Remove the tile and prepare the wall according to the corresponding instructions above, or tile over the existing tile.

To do so, make sure all of the tiles are intact and secure. Repair any loose or cracked tiles. If existing tiles are beyond repair, remove the tile and install a piece of wallboard in its place. Wash the wall with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) or an ammonia-based cleaner to remove any grease or oil. This ensures the tile adhesive secures to the surface.

Good to Know

If you’re installing glass tile over colors or patterns, note that they will show through. For a smooth, opaque finish, apply the new tile with a solid white adhesive and a smooth trowel. If you use a notched trowel, the grooves may also show through the tiles.